Why ask questions?

“Judith, stop asking so many questions.” I still hear the voices of teachers, headmistresses, the butcher, my ballet teacher, my girl-guide leader. 

“Stop thinking so much. Curiosity killed the cat. Go outside and play.”
“But Mummy,”  I’d ask. “Why can’t I …”
“Because you can’t.”
“Why not?”
“Because it’s not possible.”
“Why not?”
“Because nobody ever has.” 

Swinging Jen

This was post-war London. Holes in the ground from the bombs, food scarcities, dark enveloping fogs, everything grey, brown, black or blue. It was not a time of optimism and possibility. But I was a thoughtful and creative child. Dancing on the lawn in our little back garden, swinging on the swing under the cherry tree that filled the sky, talking to the fairies in the rockery garden where the bomb shelter used to be. My wonderings arose unbidden for a few years but stayed silent in my head. By the time I reached adolescence my curiosity had gone underground. I developed opinions, morals and rules instead. 

The annual Speech day at Palmer’s School for Girls was such a bore. I was a sassy seventeen-year-old, dozing through most of the speeches. Then I heard the speaker with the big hat say, “Girls, listen to me. It is imperative you develop yourselves: your full potential. Take nothing at face value. Question. Inquire. Educate yourselves while you have the chance.” 

I jolted up in my chair. “Potential! What a lovely word.” I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant. I looked it up in the Oxford dictionary. “Potential: Expressing possibilities. Capable of coming into being or action.” A shiver zipped up my spine. Then I looked up the word “Inquire.” “Make Search,” it said. “Seek information.” 

Broadstairs running in water

I remember how my eyes blinked wide, how I sat taller, excited, taking shallow breaths as if I’d heard something important. I didn’t understand why. But I was beginning to awaken from teenage obsessions with my hair, mini-skirts and men. In some ways, here began my best education. A spark from my childhood re-ignited. I hugged it to myself like a secret. 

After fifty years, I'm reminiscing over the thrill and challenge of hearing those words. The permission and encouragement they brought me to do what came naturally. To quest and query and cogitate. Have I been on the quest ever since? Is this how I educate myself—by wondering, wandering, and grappling with new ideas?  To quote myself, "Once you’ve figured out the questions, you’re halfway to the answers.” It’s such a juicy process. 

What are the questions you are wondering about at this time? 

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